The scorer of one of the great Champions League-winning goals in history will make his debut as a manager in the competition on Wednesday, when Zinedine Zidane leads Real Madrid to Roma for their Round of 16 first leg.
As a player, Zidane capped his first season at the Bernabeu following a then-record transfer from Juventus by striking a memorable volley to clinch a 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League final. At the time it appeared likely to be the first of many triumphs in the competition for Zidane and his team of Galácticos. Yet it would turn out to be not just his first but his last. The policy of then and current president Florentino Perez of filling the team with attacking talent failed to reap the dividends expected.
Now as a manger, Zidane is charged with trying to mold a similarly top-heavy squad of star attacking names into a team capable of winning a competition Real Madrid have always viewed as a true marker of their status as a club. They have won the European Cup a record 10 times, but already Zidane must deal with the pressure of chasing number 11. For now, though, the focus is on getting past Roma.
“It’s a special competition for the club, for me and above all for the players,” he said on the eve of the match with Roma, reports Spanish daily AS. “We all know the special history we have in the Champions League. The most important thing is that we are ready and we are. We are in good shape physically. We’ll give it everything.”
Zidane has made a positive start to his time in charge at Madrid, winning five and drawing one of his six games in charge, while scoring 23 goals. It has been a similarly bright reintroduction to life at Roma for Luciano Spalletti.
Like Real Madrid, Roma initiated a change in coach since the draw for the first Champions League knockout phase was made in December. In the Italian side’s case, it meant dispensing with Rudi Garcia after two-and-a-half years in charge and turning to the man who previously led the club between 2005 and 2009.
Under the Italian, Roma reached the Champions League quarterfinals twice, a feat they have not accomplished since. And in the first of those quarterfinal runs, Spalletti led Roma past Real Madrid in the Round of 16 thanks to victories both at home and away.
Spalletti, though, does not believe any comparisons can be made to the upcoming matchup, although he has downplayed the idea that Real Madrid are resounding favorites to progress ahead of the first leg at the Stadio Olimpico.
“That Roma team was a much more seasoned and experienced one compared to this side,” he said in his pre-match press conference, reports Gazzetta World. “I played with a system then that was recognized by the players and was tried and trusted. It had produced results.
“Currently, we are on the road to getting there and are trying to improve the group. I think that this is a suitable match though to see where we are at this stage of our development. I’m confident and my players are ready. I also don’t believe that either team is favored going into this time. I think that both of us have a 50 percent chance of reaching the next round.”
Like Zidane, Spalletti has made an impressive start this time around, leading Roma to four straight victories in Serie A to help the club up to fourth. And he is expected to be boosted by a near-full-strength squad, with the return of two club stalwarts Francesco Totti and Daniele de Rossi. Real Madrid, meanwhile, will continue to be without Gareth Bale and Pepe, but could have Marcelo back available.
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 1